Hi, it's me, Franz. You may be asking yourself, "This guy's made a couple records without needing my help, why is he coming around with his digital paw out now?"
Remember when Prince got all worked up in the '90s about owning his master recordings? It's still important - and in a digital-download world, it's even the easiest way. Records still cost to make, and it's no secret that way less labels are out there with budgets for making albums in general - much less for an acquired-taste songwriter - so if I can raise the money to make the record myself, I'm getting the best of all worlds. Sometimes life makes it convenient: I paid for "Major General" mostly from a small advance on my songwriting on a Hold Steady record; and "Luck & Courage" with the money from a summer touring with Against Me. This year, there's no great "extra-credit" money on the horizon, so for those of you can kick in 10 or 20 bucks, think of it as pre-paying for an album that hopefully you'd buy in any case; but that without your help, wouldn't get made.
What kind of album? See if this stokes your curiosity: songs about a gang of conceptual terrorists who go out with a bang, songs about Leatherface singer Frankie Stubbs, a reconsideration of the slogan of my home state of New Hampshire, going to see a rockabilly legend with Dave Dondero, betrayal and revenge as explained by the fishing habits of migratory birds, and a murderer haunted by a Greek chorus of Bostonians.
And I finally wrote a song with tap-dance solo.
Watch the video for a story about the album title & a new dance sensation.
Here's roughly how album costs breaks down:
- $5000 - Studio time ($500/day x 10 days)
- $3000 - Producer fee ($300/day x 10 days)
- $2500 - musician fees ($500 each for 4 band members, $100 each for strings & extra players)
- $3000 - Print publicity ($1000/mo x 3 months)
- $3000 - Radio promo ($1000/mo x 3 months)
- $1000 - Video (in the age of YouTube and blog embeds)
I realize that adds up to more than $10k. There are other expenses, of course - publicity, transportation, paying rent for God's sake - but I want to get the thing made, so I'm setting the bar lower, to cover JUST the recording of the thing, and hopefully we overshoot it or I raise the rest separately.
By comparison, "Luck And Courage" cost $11,100, in more or less the same proportions. Not crazy-time, just enough to make the record efficiently and let it be heard.
PLEASE CHECK OUT THE FAQs for my answers to some frequent concerns, issues, and general squeamishness that some people have about community-sourced arts funding.
Not that you asked, I'm open to barter - so if you want anything specific that's not on the rewards list - a voicemail message, wedding proposal in song, jingle for your online graphic-design concern - email me at email@example.com and we can strike a deal.
Let me suggest a couple ways of thinking about this.
1. ARTS FUNDING: Society in general has decided we're OK with subsidizing the "unpopular" arts. Jazz & classical musicians and organizations; performance artists, dancers, and installationeers are already largely funded by both public and private grants and foundations.
In fact, as long as you pay taxes, you are de facto already funding arts and artists, since your tax dollars go into things like the National Endowment for the Arts and state Councils for the Arts, which re-grant it to groups from Anti-Social Music to the New York Philharmonic. (Even more so if you're in Europe). Since your money is already going to arts which you yourself never consume, why not take ownership of being an arts patron and direct some of it to artists you support?
Some people get squeamish because the idea of "popular" music is that it rises or falls on the strength of its own "popularity," and that its role is to live and die by market Darwinism. But jazz and classical music were "popular" music once, and we artificially support them because of a general agreement that it falls within society's interest that they survive. In a world of diminished value for content, there are an awful lot of experimental musicians that make a better living - with the help of grant funding - than the indie rockers, or art rockers, or whatever the flavor is that you consider to have "artistic merit." At what point does today's "popular" music pass out of the market and into the world of arts and arts funding?
To put it another way, I don't think you get to love Spotify and be annoyed by Kickstarter.
2. THE PUBLIC RADIO/PODCAST MODEL: (This analogy won't work for those living outside the U.S. Not sure what the equivalents are.) When you turn on NPR twice a year and they're doing a weeklong pledge drive, sure, you're annoyed. They get that. And, they're even funded by large patrons. In the case of public television, at this point, they basically sell advertising. And yet there's Ira Glass saying, "Listen. We're just trying to be straight with you - we're not quite self-sustaining, and if you get any pleasure or enlightenment out of this, we'd love your help keeping the lights on."
I've noticed that certain podcasts, even those with sponsors, (including WTF with Marc Maron and TBTL with Luke Burbank) have adopted this model.
3. POLITICAL CAMPAIGN FINANCE: We have a political system in the United States that requires candidates to be constantly raising tremendous amounts of money for campaign costs. Depending on your politics, we can disagree about whether this is a good or bad thing, but it exists; and given that existence, we often praise candidates who raise a greater percentage of their money in a "grass-roots" way - $20 each from "regular citizens" who may not be a part of the political establishment but feel strongly that a particular candidate's message is worth supporting. Do they get anything material from their donation? Not necessarily; certainly not in the same way that a corporation who donates hundreds of thousands of dollars does. Can, and do, many candidates raise most of their money in bulk from the rich or corporate? Of course. But don't we prefer when many people have a small stake in something to a situation where only a few have a huge stake?
To make the analogy explicit - we have a music industry in which albums cost a certain amount of money to make. Are there labels who will front the money? Sometimes. Can you go behind the scenes and solicit private donations from wealthy people? Sure. The movie business is run this way - filmmakers of all levels spend a huge chunk of their time, and artistic capital, raising millions from the wealthy to finance the projects they can with as little compromise as possible (read Orson Welles' life story.) But wouldn't we, in general, prefer to spread the risk in order to spread the sense of ownership - and to make it more likely that more projects get made?
No, obviously not; and I'm not trying to claim that it is. But neither is $100 the going rate for a public radio tote bag - when we fundraise, we make an implicit agreement that the reward isn't the same as a market-rate transaction. See "public radio fund drive" above.
Not if you're doing it efficiently. Touring has some upfront costs - $800 for a plane ticket to Europe, $125 for excess baggage, $100 for excess weight (vinyl!); $70/day for a rental car, $50/day for gas - but in general those are fixed costs. If you average $200 at a show and sell $100 in merch, you've paid your expenses after the first week.
(See next question...)
My friends made their record in the basement while they worked their coffeehouse job. Why can't you just do that? Why so defensive?
...So that's how I make my living (rent, student loan payments, food, and so on). And it works for that. But as anyone who tries to put aside money for big expenses knows, the money that you live on sometimes only gets you to the next paycheck - in my case, to the next tour.
In other words, I do have a job. It pays about as well as a coffeehouse job - really - but it's a good job, I like it, and I've worked hard and sacrificed to get it. (And not for nothing, but in a country with 16% of its people out of work, it's not that easy for a guy with a hole in his resume going back to 2006 to just pick up a second gig, when they know you're just going to leave and go on tour again.)
I'm going to borrow a point from my friends at the Future Of Music Coalition (http://futureofmusic.org). Most music fans, and most musicians, only have two models with which to think about a life in music: the Starving Artist or the Rock Star. The starving artist has moral authority and credibility, and the rock star is rich as hell and has total independence. Most Starving Artists imagine, in their heart of hearts, that they'll eventually be Rock Stars.
But most musicians who spend their life in music fall somewhere in between - the Middle-Class Musician. Somewhere in between blue-collar and white-collar; making enough to live on - let's say $20k-$60k - and caught somewhere along the margins as far as things like health insurance, mortgages, and car payments.
And it's on the head of the Middle-Class Musician that most judgments about morals and ethics in the music world fall, about licensing songs for commercials, about which other bands to tour with, about signing with particular labels (major v. indie v. major indie) - and independent fundraising. A lot of arguments against things like commercial licensing are the ethics of the Starving Artist, which the Rock Star has the comfort and flexibility to ignore or indulge them.
So let me re-personalize this argument. I think some music fans, who embrace the new realities of the music business when it comes to things like Spotify ($0.00029 artist royalty per play) and iTunes ($0.30 artist royalty per track), simultaneously continue to cling to the old reality of a music business where a record is paid for by a label then released - a passive, one-way, producer/consumer path. And they don't like to see, as they say, how the sausages are made. In other words, things like Kickstarter don't look cool. But that ship has sailed - I'm willing to look a little lame to get music made.
For someone like me - I'm not a big deal, but I have a couple thousand people who are interested in hearing my music. I've had my face on some blogs and magazines, but I'm not famous. I can find labels that are willing to put up $3k to print 2,000 copies of my record. But for most labels, asking them to invest another $10,000 in making that record - 333% more - is a step well too far.
And this goes for many artists you like. So, if you stick by the old model, the record will never get made - the risk is just too much for two entities to support.
But if you can spread the risk from two entities to several hundred, then it's a risk that everyone can afford and support, and the record gets made. And in general, more records made is a net benefit to the music community.
One of the things I've always liked about punk rock world is the idea that it's a community, that the people who make the music are no different functionally than the people who consume it, that it's a conversation, not a monologue. And part of being a community is having a stake in it, feeling a sense of responsibility toward keeping that community moving forward. If you don't like my music, by all means don't feel an obligation to contribute. But there is some other musician out there whose music you love, and could use your help. And if we can agree to support the idea of community-sourcing funding for projects from this, to Kevin Seconds' tour van, to who knows what coming down the line, we'll all have more music from the people whose work we love.
Obviously, whether this works or not, I'll do my damnedest to get the record made by hook or crook, as I always have.
But let me just point out, it's not just the person making the record who is affected by budget constraints: there is a ripple effect. To do a record on the cheap, I have to ask the other musicians to play for little or nothing, call in favors with engineers, and so on. Frankly this is often how records get made, and why talented musicians drop out of music-making every day when they realize how rarely they are paid a wage commensurate with their ability. Every dollar you put into this is passed on to the music-making community at large; and supports all kinds of musicians, artists, graohic designers, and engineers whose name isn't on the front cover.
As you should, and thank you, you are doing the lord's own work. BUT I should point out that pre-ordering via Kickstarter is the most efficient way of making sure the highest percentage goes to the artist. Unless the artists are self-pressing and self-releasing, they buy their CDs from a label at a unit cost of around $4, so they keep $6 of your $10 as profit (unless they've brought them across a border and been charged customs duty!) Pre-ordering a $10 record via Kickstarter costs only Kickstarter's 5% commission and Amazon's 3-5% commission - $9 to the artist.
For more useful information about the best - and worst - ways to listen to music if you want to support the artist, check out this graphic: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/how-much-do-music-artists-earn-online/
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